The ten plagues—they’re fascinating, they’re famous, and they sometimes seem overly harsh. Where do they fit in the story of the Bible and the process of God revealing his own name and character? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk about the ten plagues, or ten acts of de-creation, in which Yahweh uses his power over creation to undo his own creation in judgment. Listen in as we explore how God’s response to evil reveals another layer of his character.
[Pharaoh] is not only doing bad things, but he is fundamentally misrepresenting the rule and character of God…. So when God brings the ten acts of de-creation upon Egypt, God says it’s a judgment against Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. This isn’t run-of-the-mill human stupidity or simply poor decision making. Pharaoh and Egypt represent the height of corruption and rebellion, partnered with spiritual rebellion. Pharaoh represents the snake, the archetypal foe of Yahweh among the nations…. There are times when God deals with severe justice with human evil. And you learn something about someone’s character from how they respond to really horrendous evil.
In part one (00:00-11:15), Tim and Jon continue tracing the theme of God’s name in the first movement of Exodus. In the last two episodes, we talked about how God introduces himself by name to Moses and sends him to Egypt to deliver Israel from slavery. But when he gets there, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Yahweh’s name and to let the Israelites go.
In response, Yahweh responds with judgment upon Pharaoh and Egypt. We know his response, typically, as the ten plagues. Each plague is an act of de-creation.
Throughout the ten plagues narrative in Exodus 6-11, Yahweh says seven times that the plagues are another way they “will know that I am Yahweh,” the phrase we’ve been tracing as we study the theme of God’s name. Why is God so concerned with people knowing his name? It’s not a divine ego trip. As the source of all life and order, Yahweh is concerned with humanity knowing him and, thereby, embracing their own life and flourishing.
By not acknowledging Yahweh’s name, Pharaoh is not only denying the basis of his own existence, but setting himself up as an equal rival to Yahweh. Ancient Egyptians worshiped pharaohs as gods, and the pharaoh Moses confronts had set himself up among the ranks of the gods of Egypt. Pharaoh and Egypt represent the height of human corruption and rebellion, as well as the height of corruption and rebellion among spiritual beings (elohim).
In part two (11:15-24:15), Tim and Jon talk about the structure and order of the ten acts of de-creation. The narrator of Exodus actually uses multiple words to describe Yahweh’s acts in Exodus 6-11, although only one of Yahweh’s signs is a true plague or illness. In this case, the word plague is a translation of the Hebrew word nagaph, which means “to hit or strike” and is used throughout the narrative.
Whatever we choose to call them, the ten plagues or signs are acts of de-creation, in which Yahweh uses his power over creation to undo his own creation in judgment.
Yahweh acts ten times, and the narrator organizes those ten acts with an attention to detail that’s truly remarkable. The ten plagues are divided into three groups of three, with the tenth set apart. The seven-time repetition of the phrase “You will know that I am Yahweh” is intentional, too, of course. Seven symbolizes completion in the Hebrew Bible, so the narrator is indicating that God is revealing something true about his character through his acts of judgment in a way that carries with it a sense of completion.
In order, the ten acts of de-creation are the Nile River turned to blood, an infestation of frogs, followed by gnats and flies, disease, boils, hail, locusts, unending darkness, and then the death of all firstborns.
Each of these nine plagues is a direct counter to Pharaoh’s evil against Israel in Exodus 1.
In part three (24:15-44:45), Tim and Jon discuss the first nine plagues.
The first plague, when Yahweh turns the Nile River into blood in Exodus 7:14-24, might seem like a strange first move. However, the transformation of the Nile into blood echoes back to the innocent blood of Israelite boys drowned in the Nile by Pharaoh in Exodus 1. Pharaoh filled the river with dead bodies, and now their blood cries out to Yahweh.
The Nile was the lifeline of Egypt, its primary source of water for human sustenance, livestock, and agriculture, and consequently, the fuel of its economy. Because of this, Egyptians saw the Nile as a deity and Pharaoh as the god who exercised control over it. Yahweh’s control over the Nile demonstrates his authority over the waters, as well as over both human and spiritual power structures.
In Exodus 8, Yahweh sends an infestation of frogs upon Egypt, which is full of call-backs to Genesis 1-2 (as are the following plagues). In Genesis 1, Yahweh brings order to the untamed chaos of creation when he separates land and water, making it possible for animals and humans to live. Frogs, because they dwell in both land and water, represent the undoing of this ordered separation. Yahweh is returning Egypt to a state of disorder and chaos in judgment for their evil.
Later, Yahweh tells Moses to strike the dirt so that the dust rises up and becomes gnats; this is the third plague (Exodus 8:16-19). This is another inverse of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2: humans were brought to life from the dust of the land (Genesis 2:7), and now they are covered by dust/gnats that represent death and mortality. Similarly, the plague of flies (Exodus 8:20-32) inverts God’s blessing to humanity in Genesis 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply and “fill the land.” Now, flies (which like to hang out on dead things) fill the land. For the first time, Yahweh separates Egypt and Israel, not allowing the Israelites to be afflicted in the same way as the Egyptians (Exodus 8:22), a pattern he repeats in the de-creative acts that follow.
The narrator depicts each of these nine plagues with language that’s straight out of Genesis 1-2, making each one a demonstration of Yahweh’s power that alludes to the creation story, inverting those themes to tell a de-creation story instead.
In part four (44:45-01:00:03), the guys discuss the tenth and final plague. Even the number of plagues mimics the creation narrative. In Genesis 1, Yahweh spends seven days creating the world, during which period he speaks ten times to create. Here, in Exodus, he speaks and acts ten times to de-create.
Before any of the plagues, Yahweh warned Pharaoh that because he was harming his firstborn son, Israel, he would face judgment for that (Exodus 4:22-23). Pharaoh refuses to respond even to this warning, and so Yahweh inverts Pharaoh’s evil and brings the harshest act of judgment of all––the death of all firstborns in Egypt, human and animal.
In contrast to Pharaoh’s utter lack of mercy in Exodus 1, Yahweh provides a way to escape his judgment. Yahweh tells Moses that anyone who listens to his warning and obeys him by sacrificing a sheep or goat and putting the blood on the doorposts of their houses will be spared (Exodus 12). He instructs each family to bring all their household members and livestock into the house to avoid the coming judgment––much like the humans and animals who gather in the ark with Noah to wait out the flood.
This event was the first Passover and the first of a seven-day ritual called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a week that is still celebrated by the Jewish people today. Passover became a defining mark in Yahweh’s revelation of his own name, and consequently, in the identity of the people of Israel and the story of the Bible.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Zach McKinley. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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